I recently completed my 4th year of playing the trumpet since returning to the instrument, so it's time to add another "anniversary" post to my jazz blog.
RANGE, ENDURANCE, PRESSURE
If you've been keeping up with my journal entries, you know that I've been struggling with range ever since I started to play the trumpet again. Two years ago, I wrote that an E at the top of the staff was the highest note of my comfortable range. Last year, my comfortable range expanded to a G at the top of the staff. Well, I'm pleased to report that the trend has continued (in minor thirds!), as this year my range has expanded to a Bb above the staff. You can hear a few of those Bb's and A's in my recent jazz improvisation clips.
My endurance has also improved during this past year. About a year and a half ago, I could barely play more than 15 or 20 minutes before I needed a rest. Not only would I need to rest, but also my range would drop down to an E at the top of the staff unless I rested for at least a couple of hours. Now, I can play about 20-30 minutes before resting and I only need a short 20-30 minute rest before most of my range returns. Since I rarely have more than 20 or 30 minutes free at any given time, especially during the week, my present endurance level suits me just fine.
No doubt, a major factor in my improved endurance is my use of less mouthpiece pressure overall. Sure, there are times when I'm improvising and I use a lot of mouthpiece pressure to nail a high note, but for the most part I've been good about using less pressure. When my chops tire and I can't hit a note without increasing the pressure, I (usually) put my horn down and rest.
My daily practice routine hasn't changed since last year, and since I've been steadily improving, I'm definitely going to stick with it. I may change parts of my routine as time goes on, perhaps to freshen things up or to add new challenges, but the basic types of exercises will remain the same. And that brings me to the following point:
Stick with your routine! - More than perhaps any other instrument, trumpeters are constantly looking for a quick fix to our problems. We want a higher range, a bigger tone, smoother articulation, etc... and we want it now. Often the "fix" manifests itself as an unending search for the right mouthpiece. Sometimes the "fix" has us switching trumpet methods, moving from Caruso to Adams, to Gordon, etc. These changes aren't necessarily bad, but I see far too many trumpet players moving from one thing to another without giving anything the time it needs to work itself out. So, unless a new routine is drastically ineffective, you should stick with it for at least two or three months before deciding whether or not to try something else. And, of course, with whatever you do, there's no substitute for practice!
It's been almost three years since I've started to work on ear training and the progress has been steady and extremely rewarding. About a year ago, I was only able to do 4-note random melody phrases with my ear trainer, and even then, they were at slow tempos and I made LOTS of mistakes. Now, I regularly practice 7-note phrases at ~150 bpm and I'm able to play the majority of them perfectly, without looking at starting notes or anything. Similarly, my accuracy playing simple songs by ear has improved along with my ability to play along with jazz recordings.
Unfortunately, I still have bad days/sessions where my ear doesn't lock in well and I make a lot of mistakes. I've found that once I start making a bunch of mistakes, I rarely self-correct because my critical side takes over and I start doubting my abilities. Those negative thoughts prevent me from playing to my potential and basically the whole session is a bust. I've read The Inner Game of Tennis, The Inner Game of Music, and Effortless Mastery, so you'd think I'd be able to shut off the negative thoughts and get back to business, but no. It's sad when you realize Homer Simpson has more control over his brain then you do...
- Homer: All right, brain, you don't like me, and I don't like you, but let's just get me through this, and I can get back to slowly killing you with beer.
- Brain: It's a deal!
Last year, I wrote that my journey with jazz improvisation was just beginning. I still feel that way, and it all revolves around ear training. As my ability to play by ear improves, so does my ability to play the ideas in my head. I'm constantly trying new things, making mistakes along the way, but edging closer and closer to finally making music!